How To Sight-Read Like a Pro
Do you like to sight-read? LOL, right?
Well, some people do. *Meekly raises hand*
Why do so many singers dread sight-reading? Oh, so many reasons. Fear of the unknown. Fear of making a mistake. Feeling like they're on-the-spot. They don't feel like they're good at it. It's hard. The list could go on. So, I'm here to help take some of the fear, dread, and mystery out of sight-reading! Now, I'm going to offer you lots of tips in this post, based on years of sight-reading experience in all kinds of musical settings. This post assumes that you have *some* experience reading music, and that you have a basic handle on musical symbols and terms. I'm not going to address the particulars of solfege, key signatures, rhythms, or intervals. That's part of what your teacher or music theory class is for.
What I'm aiming to address here is how to sight-read during actual, real-life situations - choral rehearsals, auditions, etc. - which is a whole heck of a lot different than just doing a simple sight-singing exercise in your lesson or a class. Exercises have their purpose in learning, to be sure. But what I've noticed throughout the years is that there is often a huge disconnect between sight-reading in a controlled environment, such as a class, and sight-reading in an actual musical situation - and I believe it's because singers often aren't taught what to prioritize when they sight-read. And that puts them into a state of overwhelm very quickly, with no tools for getting out. Also, I want to remind you that sight-reading takes practice. Just reading about it is not going make you better. You have to do it. I'll offer some tips for that too. But, just so we're crystal clear on that. No magic bullets here.
What Is Sight-Reading?
Sight-reading is when you are handed a piece of music and immediately asked to sing or play it,
without taking any time to learn it. You're usually given a few minutes to look it over silently, and work out a handful of crucial details, but not much more.
Why Is Sight-Reading Important?
Musical ensembles expect their members to be able to sight-read, to one degree or another. It helps a great deal in those first few rehearsals if the ensemble can muddle its collective way through something without it completely falling apart. You may hear the argument that singers who mainly do stage productions or recitals don't need to be good sight-readers, because their work mostly involves preparing music well in advance. That might be true, but being able to sight-read is part of being a well-rounded musician. Instrumentalists are trained to be excellent sight-readers, even if they're primarily concert soloists. So why should singers be any different?
How To Sight-Read
When you're in a sight-reading situation, the first thing you need to do is remind yourself of the following things:
You will make mistakes
It's okay if you make mistakes
When you're handed a piece of music to sight-read, you should immediately look at the following things:
The time signature
The tempo marking, if any is given
The key signature, if there is one
Then, glance through the piece to get a general sense of what it's about. What kinds of rhythms do you notice? Are there lots of moving notes, or sustained notes? Lots of rests? If so, what's happening during those rests that you can listen for when the time comes? Are there lots of accidentals (sharps/flats/naturals that aren't indigenous to the home key)? Do the key, tempo, and/or meter ever change? Are there any fancy repeats? If so, figure out where they go ahead of time. Notice I mention NOTHING about the text. We singers are a word-centered people, and this is hard for some of us to grasp, but the text is not a priority when sight-reading. Sure, look at it if you have time; note what language it's in, whether it's wordy or repetitive, etc. But keep in mind that you've got bigger fish to fry. After all, what's more important: keeping up with the rest of the ensemble, or dwelling on whether you pronounced "excelsis" correctly six measures ago? Exactly. Just sing whatever words come out of your mouth. No one is going to care that first time through - I promise you.
Your Three Main Goals:
Don't dwell on your mistakes in the moment.
The Main Musical Priorities, In Order:
Accurate rhythm. If this is your main goal, you'll have a better chance of starting and finishing sections at the right time, and focusing on cut-offs, tempo changes, and cues.
Anticipating the next thing. If you're thinking a couple beats ahead, there's less of a chance of getting left behind. Especially with page-turns - you should be turning your page a measure or so ahead of time.
Accurate pitches. Even shooting just for general pitch direction is fine for the first time through.
Notice how pitch accuracy is not first or second on this list - but last. Yes, we eventually want to
be singing all the right notes. But those first couple of times, the priority is just getting through it, and getting an overall sense of the piece in the process. If you are fixated on individual pitch inaccuracies, it means you are dwelling on your mistakes, which means you are ignoring Goal #2 above, which means you'll probably fall hopelessly behind, which in turn means that you're actually ignoring Goals #1 and #3, too. Pitches are a micro thing. Rhythm and structure are macro. You want to be focusing on the macro.
My best advice for pitch mistakes is to have your pencil at the ready. If you know where you made a mistake, circle it quickly and move the heck on. This way, you'll know to give extra focus to those passages during any subsequent run-throughs. Besides, you can (and should) come back to it later, on your own time, when your brain isn't as inundated.
Just A Heads Up:
Sight-reading can be mentally tiring. It's a lot of brain multi-tasking.
Sight-reading can be vocally tiring. When you're focused on keeping up, technique often gets put on the back burner. It's just what happens. Do what you can, obviously, but don't be surprised if you leave your rehearsal feeling vocally fatigued.
How Do I Practice Sight-Reading?
Sight-reading is hard, and the only way to get better at it is to do it more. There are tons of sight-
reading methods, books, and apps that can help you work on rhythmic and pitch accuracy. Find one that resonates with you, or ask your teacher for recommendations. As with anything, consistency is key. Do a little bit each day.
Start by working on reading rhythms. If you master rhythms, you will be, like, 80% of the way there. Pick up a piece of music and see if you can speak, tap, or clap the rhythm. Pitches are irrelevant.
Work on recognizing large versus small intervals visually - i.e., what does a step look like in your music, and what does a skip look like? What does a big skip look like, versus a small one?
For pitch accuracy, find a system that works for you. Some people like solfege, some like numbers; others, like myself, read almost entirely by interval.
No matter which system you choose, do some interval training. What does a perfect fourth sound like? What does a major seventh sound like? What do these intervals look like on the page? Solfege can help, for sure, but there are times when it won't be applicable. Intervals are always
applicable, which is why I prefer to use them instead of syllables. Some people like to use "clue tunes" for interval training - snippets of familiar songs you can easily recall to help you identify certain intervals. For example, the first two notes of "Here Comes the Bride" are a perfect fourth. The opening phrase of Beethoven's fifth symphony outlines a descending major third. And so on. Once you feel you've reached an adequate comfort level, test yourself. Try sight-reading anything you can get your hands on. It doesn't even have to be a vocal piece. Give yourself 20-30 seconds to look it over, and try to go straight through without stopping. Then give yourself a little break, look it over again, and see if your accuracy improves with a second run-through. Just remember: it takes time to get good at this. Everyone makes mistakes. And mistakes, if we have the right mindset about them, can be beautiful little pieces of information that we learn from for the next time.